Aquaria: Killing God

The nature of Aquaria‘s end boss is hinted at early on, in the cave where you learn your first song. There, you can find an evil-looking statue of a distorted face, with some kind of horns or tentacles attached. As you approach it, you hear a chuckle from a malevolent disembodied basso with good reverb, a bit like the voice of the Guardian in Ultima VII. On the wall, a word in Aquarian script identifies this being. That word: “Creator”. You’ve been fighting mad gods throughout the game, but this one is the original, the mad god to end all mad gods — or rather, to start them. It seems that all the dead races referenced in the game are his creations, experiments that ran their course and were discarded, leaving nothing but forsaken monsters. Even in your final battle with him, his signature attack consists of spawning new creations for you to fight, including shadowy versions of Naija herself.

Like any self-respecting god, what Creator really wants is worship. But in asking for it, he comes off as a creepy stalker: “You will love me forever”, etc., with a strong undertone of “I want you to give up all hope of ever being anything other than my abject, dehumanized plaything, and if you don’t, you are my enemy and will be destroyed, just like so many others before you”. In other words, it’s the whole “God as Abuser” concept stripped bare. But in the end, after you defeat his final form, he turns out to be no Gnostic demiurge: creator of civilizations though he may be, he’s not the creator of the world. He’s just a traumatized child given way too much power. As the last of his own people, his sincere motivation for everything he’s done is simple loneliness — which is very explicitly Naija’s motivation as well. Is she less of a monster than him? She’s more sympathetic at the moment, but if the root cause of his evil is that he’s too powerful, what are we to say about someone who goes around killing gods?

But I suppose she’s at least got the loneliness kicked. Towards the middle of the game, she meets a human named Li. She immediately falls in love with him, and grants him water-breathing ability with a kiss — it’s one of those stylized folk-tale romances, as unrealistic as their unmoving faces. I didn’t mention Li before because he honestly didn’t seem all that important. He follows you around and provides a certain amount of supporting fire, like a second pet, but otherwise just kind of fades into the background. Sometimes it took me a while to notice that he had gotten stuck somewhere and wasn’t with me any more. Towards the end, you learn a song that lets you use him for a powerful and complicated attack sequence, but once you have that, the game has to come up with excuses to not let you use it, and so Li suddenly develops a habit of getting captured and requiring rescue, like a gender-swapped Princess Peach. In the end, it’s the jealous Creator’s insistence on separating them that goads Naija into direct confrontation. (Well, that and the fact that his inner sanctum is the only place in the entire world that she hasn’t explored yet.)

The approach to the end involves a fair amount of adventure-game-like puzzle-solving, where you’re thrown into unique situations and have to apply the correct song to make progress. The final boss fight itself continues this. It’s a multi-stage affair, going through four distinct phases, some with multiple sub-phases. The most affecting part, I felt, was the bit where Creator morphs into a one-eyed insect-like thing that scuttles off into the darkness, then repeatedly flees from your light like a cockroach. If there’s one thing scarier than a monstrosity, it’s a half-glimpsed monstrosity that doesn’t want you to see it. I’ll probably have more to say about that when I post about the next game.

Aquaria: The Jumping Druid

I’m generally pretty loose with spoilers on this blog. My goal in writing is to examine games in depth and detail, and tiptoeing around the plot just gets in the way of that. And I generally trust my readers to understand that a post with the word “Aquaria” in its title will contain information about Aquaria, and leave it at that. But today, I’m going to strongly recommend that anyone who’s playing Aquaria, or who thinks they might play Aquaria in the future, stop reading now, if you derive any satisfaction from solving puzzles on your own.

I said before that the one way that Aquaria fails to fit the Metroidvania model is that it isn’t a platformer: instead of jumping on platforms, you swim freely in a water-filled vertical 2D space. This isn’t quite true. There are places where you can breach the surface, jump high into the air like a playful porpoise, and come kersplashing down again. And, this being the sort of game it is, there are places you can’t reach any other way — the simplest being sections of water that are cut off from the mainstream by a chunk of island that you can vault over. But there are also things far less accessible than that, such as completely dry vertical shafts. The in-game map shows you the entire shape of each zone you visit, including the shape of the bits you haven’t visited yet, so it’s clear that there’s stuff to be found up above, but getting there is a problem.

Naija can survive on dry land, but, despite being humanoid, cannot walk on it. She’s accustomed to letting the water support her. Without it, she can only manage crouching and salmon-leaps. And there are places where this is sufficient to navigate the land, where the ascent is either gentle enough or irregular enough to leap up in steps. It’s tricky, though, because, just as underwater, you don’t have precise control over where you’ll wind up — the direction you jump in is affected by the angle of the surface you’re clinging to. I spent a considerable amount of time today repeatedly trying to get a sequence of jumps just right. Here, the game takes on all the frustrations of a conventional platformer, such as falling all the way to the bottom and having to start over. It’s sort of an inversion of the usual platformer, where the possibility of drowning means that the underwater sections are the annoying part.

But even that doesn’t really apply to those sheer vertical shafts. It seemed like the only way to ascend those was to take them in a single superhuman leap. There are ways to extend one’s initial jump out of the water: using the Beast form (the only song-form capable of swimming against a strong current), eating soup for a temporary speed boost. But such techniques only take one so far. And so I was left with a puzzle.

And it’s a pretty good puzzle, it turns out. The solution involves a bit of lateral thinking, in that it applies old tools in new ways. I mentioned before the Nature form, the fantasy-druid version of Naija with the power to make phallic-looking thorny plants burst out of the walls, damaging any enemies too slow or stupid to dodge a plant. The Nature form isn’t a very useful one generally, but it does have a few virtues, such as immunity to damage from sea anemones and spiky things — including those thorn plants I just mentioned. And again, this isn’t usually a very useful skill. Why would you want to create a dangerous plant and then touch it?

Because you don’t want to just touch it. You want to land on it. You want to use a series of thorn plants as platforms to let you climb up the shaft. I had been focusing on the problem of how to extend the height of my leap, but what I really needed to do was divide the distance up so that I didn’t need to clear it in a single bound after all. It’s still tricky to do, and I did still sometimes wind up falling clear to the bottom and starting over, but at least it works.

And once you have the insight of using thorn plants on dry land, there are other things you can do with them. Create one right under you, and the force of it springing out of the ground will propel you upward like a rocket. So, in the end, I did discover a new way to jump higher after all, but it’s a way that isn’t much use for ascending those vertical shafts.

Aquaria: Runes

If there’s one thing the metroidvania format does well, it’s provoking a sense of place. You gain familiarity with the total layout of the gameworld because you spend a significant amount of time visiting the same places repeatedly — and not because the game forces you to, but voluntarily, because you want all the goodies that you couldn’t get at the first time around. It’s not like grinding in an RPG, because it isn’t about wandering the same stretch of ground waiting for random events. Your actions on revisiting are purposeful, or at least exploratory, and a monster you’ve met before is just something to be got past as efficiently as possible. Thus, revisiting places engenders mastery of technique.

Aquaria‘s cooking system adds an additional motivation for revisiting places: collecting ingredients for cooking. Specific items are dropped by specific creatures which can be found in specific areas, so when you discover a new use for an ingredient, you have a new reason to go back to where it’s plentiful. And if you do, you do in fact wind up essentially grinding, despite what I said above. This is something best pursued in combination with other goals, other reasons for backtracking.

"For daughter", it says. Whose daughter? Why?Lately I’ve been going back for a purpose that yields no direct benefit: I’ve been deciphering the runes. There are things written on walls throughout the game in an invented script. It turns out it’s just an alternate alphabet, and that the messages are in English. The first hint of this is actually in the opening menu, which starts off showing all its text in the Aquarian alphabet, then fades to Roman. This can be used as a kind of Rosetta stone for deciphering the rest, but it’s not really necessary — the game provides enough samples of the script to make an easy cryptogram.

I’ve managed to decipher 22 letters so far — the only ones missing from my mapping are J, K, Q, and Z, which simply haven’t appeared in any of the messages I’ve seen. The messages are mostly fairly predictable: the name of a city on a sign at its entrance, the word “Beware” just before a dangerous area, etc. But there are a few that are more interesting. One of the bosses has a lengthy message that I can only make out part of, because it’s partly blocked by the boss’s body, but it says something about someone devouring their own children — which, come to think of it, is a hint for the trick to defeating that boss. Elsewhere, in the place where I learned my first new song, “The light will guide her”. Another hint? At this point, I do have the power to create light, and I played with it a bit in that area to see if it opened up a hidden passage or something. But no, I think it’s just being metaphorical.

The messages may be mostly banal, but simply by putting them in a kind of code, the game invests them with significance. When I passed them by the first time, they were mysteries, and gave a sense of the mysterious to the surroundings. Now that I’ve broken the code, they’re little bonuses, to be eagerly attacked just in case they have something important to say.

Aquaria: Gods and Monsters

One thing I keep forgetting about the plot-crucial bosses in this game is that they’re all gods.

It’s an easy thing to forget because not all of the bosses are plot-crucial. There’s a fair number of optional ones, guarding optional but useful permanent enhancements of various sorts: some outfits with special properties; a song or two that you could get by without; in one case, the ability to cook three ingredients at a time without a kitchen (not a very useful skill so far, but I’ve got it anyway — it’s not like you know what you’re going to get before you’ve won the fight). There are four optional bosses (including the very first one you can access) that turn out to be protecting an egg bearing a smaller creature of the same species, which then becomes your pet and defends you. That’s right, it develops an attachment to its parent’s murderer, and will even help you to murder other parents so you can steal a better child to replace it with.

The important bosses, though, have backstories that you learn from an expository cutscene on defeating them. And the backstories are all more or less the same: there was an ancient race with its own special god, but something went wrong, leaving the race extinct and the god twisted into a savage, insane monstrosity. Because you only learn this after you’ve defeated it, your first impression of these beings is always their degraded form. Only after you’ve destroyed them do you get glimpses of what they used to be, provoking a reevaluation of what it meant to fight and kill them.

And then, in most cases, having destroyed them, you gain their powers. Each god-boss you kill teaches you a thematically-connected transformation song — not a direct transfer of the very attacks it used against you, as in Mega Man, but something vaguely related to what it’s supposed to be a god of. In essence, you’re slowly becoming a shapechanging (or at least outfit-changing) representative of all the dead races. There was a mention in one of the cutscenes about being destined to unite the various underwater tribes or something like that, and it looks like it means unite them in a single body. Which raises questions. There are at least two races of underwater-dwelling peoples that are still alive and thriving. Am I expected to somehow absorb them as well?

Aquaria: Cooking

Aquaria gives the player an inventory of cooking ingredients obtained by killing stuff and/or singing at plants. Collecting ingredients gives the player something to focus on after a fight, pursuing them downward as they plummet out of reach or sometimes following them laterally as they arc ballistically overhead. Different ingredients are plentiful in different areas — it’s easy to obtain crab meat in a cave full of crabs, for example — and there always seems to be some ingredient I’m short on, although which ingredient that is varies.

All cooked foods are basically potions. They either heal you in some way (restoring hit points, curing the few status effects in the game), or they give you temporary bonuses, or both, depending on their ingredients. The most plentiful ingredients are meats and oils, and the most basic things you can prepare are Hot Soup (any oil plus any meat), Sea Cake (any oil plus any egg), Leaf Poultices (leaf plus leaf), and sushi Hand Rolls (leaf plus any meat). More exotic things like pierogies are also feasible, but those four forms are the things that seem to have the greatest number of variations, created by improving them with other items — a basic cake heals you a bit, but a cake plus a leaf yields a Veggie Cake that grants temporary regeneration. It’s notable that the order is significant here: (oil plus meat) plus leaf = Veggie Soup (regeneration), but oil plus (meat plus leaf) = Tasty Roll (healing x2).

The game keeps track of what recipes you’ve discovered, and grants an Achievement for finding them all — something I’m still substantially short of. The nice part is that when you find an item in the wild, you instantly know its recipe. In fact, that’s the chief way that you learn the less intuitive combinations. Some of them are guessable, though, if you think like the game’s creators. Trying to put together an invalid combination yields Sea Loaf, a nigh-useless item that heals a tenth of a hit point. Nonetheless, if you’re going to do experiments, it’s important to max out on Sea Loaf. Your inventory can hold only up to eight of each item, and if you have that many of something, the game doesn’t let you make any more. So if you have eight Sea Loaves already, you can try throwing any random ingredients together, secure in the knowledge that the game won’t waste them on additional Sea Loaf.

My own biggest kitchen triumph was intuiting that turtle soup was a possibility, on the sole basis that I had some turtle meat and no known use for it. I did eventually find the turtle soup recipe the other way, but only after I had used it in several boss fights: turtle soup grants the strongest defensive bonus of any food I’ve seen. Boss fights are pretty much the only place I ever use food. Occasionally I’ll admit to myself that I need to consume a healing item outside of the boss fights, but it always seems like a waste, given the number of other sources of healing in the game. But when facing a boss, I throw on as many buffs as I can, because I know from experience that it makes the difference between victory and defeat.

The thing is, boss fights only happen occasionally, and I probably have enough food on hand already to last me through all the bosses that remain. But I’m still hoarding food, scavenging anything I’m short on, trying to get as close as I can to keeping eight of everything on hand all the time. Not because I need to, but just because it’s one of the activities that the game provides.

Aquaria: Tonal Shifts

If you ask me, the demo for Aquaria is misleading. This is because the demo is the beginning of the game, and the beginning of the game is the safe, comfortable area around Naija’s home. Brightly colored corals and anemones, shafts of sunlight streaming down, and if there are some dangerous fish about, there are also schools of harmless ones roaming about looking decorative.

Towards the end of the demo, there’s a brief glimpse of things to come, in the form of an interactive vision granted by a figure in a black cloak who appears in front of you without explanation: suddenly you’re in the shooting-stuff form and surrounded by bullets. This is your first glimpse of that form — presumably it was inserted so that the demo/beginning wouldn’t be too entirely misleading. But even there, the context made it seem like this was some kind of “Dark Naija” thing that you’d be shifting into involuntarily as the story (and level design) demanded it, like in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. But no, switching into shooty mode is a voluntary act, and in fact I tend to stay in that form by default, because that’s usually the best for reacting to surprises. What I really wasn’t expecting from the intro, though, is that I’d be using that form to kill those harmless fish I mentioned so I could use their meat and oil as crafting ingredients. Which shows how much I had misunderstood Naija’s relationship to the things around her, and also how quickly my attitude changes when I’m running low on healing items.

The thing that was really unexpected from the intro, though, was the descent into the Zerg Creep. There a certain lost city, probably once home to Naija’s ancestors, now home to aquatic ghouls. The walls sport what look like blood vessels in places, then turn into masses of exposed flesh, throbbing in places. There’s a skull-like door barred by what appear to be intestines. This is not the happy frolicking-in-the-sun-dappled-lagoon game I signed up for! I mean, I’m okay with it. But I haven’t even penetrated the deepest darkness yet; I expect there’s worse stuff to come.

I recall being taken aback by the shift in Ecco the Dolphin as well, which starts off as a story about a dolphin, and then suddenly sends that dolphin into outer space to defeat an alien invasion. Perhaps there’s just something about the undersea setting that changes my expectations. There’s nothing unusual about going to outer space in a videogame, just as there’s nothing unusual about shifting into veins-and-viscera decor as you get closer to the end boss. When a game starts off in a pleasant pastoral setting, I don’t normally expect it to stay there. But somehow, when it’s a pleasant underwater setting instead, I kind of expect it to not stray too far.

Aquaria: More Songs

Naija, Naija! She's a little fish!My last session netted me two more songs for transforming — apparently this is what most of the songs do. First off was fish form, which turns you into a small fish with an oddly human face.

I should note something about the faces in this game generally. Most of the creatures are fish, which of course don’t have much in the way of facial expressions, but Naija and a few other beings seen in visions are humanoid. Humanoid figures are articulated like an Indonesian shadow puppet, all 2D and shown permanently in profile but with rotating joints. This gives them enough freedom of movement that, when the camera is zoomed in enough for you to see faces clearly (as happens when you stay still for a while), it feels a little weird that the faces are so immobile. It reminds me a little of Jason Little’s experimental comic Jack’s Luck Runs Out, which uses faces from a deck of playing cards for all its characters. Little described the result as a “masked drama”, because of the way he had to compensate for the inexpressive faces with expressive body language. At any rate, it’s a bit of a reminder of what this game really is: not a world, but a work of art.

The purpose of fish form is to fit yourself through narrow passages. Supposedly it also makes some enemies ignore you, but my first try at using it in that way was unsuccessful enough to scare me away from further attempts. Once I had it, I of course started going back to places where I had noticed narrow passages before, and in the process found a boss fight against an enormous face, which occasionally changed expression. When it did, it became vulnerable to attack, allowing you to punish it for such inappropriate behavior.

The reward for destroying the unnaturally variable face: a new song. Apparently the face was the source of power for a now-extinct race of aquatic druids, and now I can turn into an approximation of one of them. (Because obviously you need to make yourself as powerful as beings who failed to prevent the extinction of their own race. I guess it’s better than fish form, at least.) In this form, you throw seeds that grow into huge and damaging thorn plants when they hit a solid surface. It’s not a very effective form of combat against most creatures; there are some things that crawl along the walls, or land on the walls between leaps, or even just stay in one place all the time, but these are generally the things it’s easy to get away from by just swimming away from the wall. I suppose I’ll find places where it’s tactically indespensible — that seems to be how things generally work in this game — but for now, my main use for it is to get past barriers. There are blue bubble-like barriers on certain passages, invulnerable to fireballs but poppable by thorns. This seems extremely arbitrary, but the game seems to have a rule that any new song you learn has to have a unique kind of barrier it overcomes.

Aquaria: Sing Mode

I sing the body aquaticNaija’s powers, as noted before, are activated by song — sort of like in Ocarina of Time, but instead of pairing notes with buttons on the gamepad, they’re arranged around her in a circle when you hold the sing button. If you’re using the mouse, that means the right mouse button. While in sing mode, you hit notes by rolling the cursor over them. Presumably the analog joystick on a gamepad picks them as well, because their layout looks exactly like the pie menus seen in Ratchet & Clank and Psychonauts. (Luckily, the eight slots are exactly enough to hold a major scale.) The one big difference from those menus is that you’re not simply picking one item. You’re picking a sequence, which means tracing out a path within the circle on the screen.

Now, the touted advantage of pie menus is that they’re gestural — that, unlike drop-down menus and the like, you don’t really need visual feedback to use them: once you know which option lies in which direction, you can sweep the mouse in that direction without looking. The sing interface in Aquaria delves deeper into the “mouse gestures” concept, making you trace out simple shapes in the process of moving from note to note, albeit with on-screen icons to guide you. At that modest level of complexity, if you can do it without visual feedback, it’s because you’re getting aural feedback from the song itself.

So far, I only know three songs — this is turning out to be a large game, so I’m still only in the second chapter. (A fourth, without an associated power, was used as a passcode to open a door at one point.) The first one you get is a temporary protective shield, activated by the gesture left-right-left-right, which produces an approximation to the “dee-doo-dee-doo” of an old-fashioned British police car siren. The second is a simple “do-re-mi” done by sweeping a counterclockwise arc upward from the bottom. This is the song for lifting large rocks, so an upward gesture of both motion and pitch is appropriate.

The third is sort of a mirror of the second, a “do-ti-la” starting at the other end of the scale, going in the opposite direction, and sounding less resolved. This song triggers a mode transition, turning Naija into Battle Goth Naija, who throws fireballs around. (The game calls them “energy bolts” or somesuch, to excuse their presence underwater, but they look like fireballs, so that’s how I think of them.) Significantly, in this mode, Naija cannot sing. The sing button is repurposed as the fireball button. You have to go back to normal, vulnerable Naija to sing (although, since that’s is the form that can do the protective shield, perhaps “vulnerable” isn’t the right word). You do this by clicking on her with the left and right mouse buttons at once, which is a little clumsy, but it works. I suppose that some similar compromise could have been made to allow shooting and singing at the same time, so the repurposing of the button is effect, not cause, of the design decision to not allow that.

Aquaria: Swimming

I just compared the way that you swim about freely in Aquaria to Ecco the Dolphin, but the way you control the swimming is quite different. Ecco was written for the Sega Genesis, which means a controller with a D-pad, not an analog joystick. The movements of the dolphin were famously smooth and fluid, but they were created through moments of acceleration parallel to the X and Y axes as the player made carefully timed nudges. Aquaria supports two different genuinely analog control schemes — joystick and mouse. It also lets you use digital controls (D-pad or WASD keys) to move, and I’ve used that on occasion — when I want controlled, slow movement, and the ability to keep the mouse cursor on the opposite side in case I suddenly need to sprint away.

So, yes, there is a cursor. Pressing and holding the left mouse button makes Naija swim towards it; clicking again puts on an additional burst of speed. Call it cursor-based directional movement, as opposed to clicking on a destination for the avatar to go to like in a typical point-and-click adventure game (which we might call cursor-based positional movement). This isn’t the only game with cursor-based directional movement I’ve ever seen, and it isn’t usually my favorite thing: if all I’m indicating is a direction, I might as well be using a joystick, and if I’m indicating a position as well, I want the game to understand the position I’m pointing to as a position. But somehow, it feels pretty good here, and I think it has to do with the dynamics of moving in water. Unless you’re moving very slowly, you never have really precise control over your position. You accelerate, you swerve around, and you glide to a stop. Even your direction of movement isn’t absolutely under your control, because it takes a moment to swerve; although it’s not compensating for digital controls like Ecco, it’s still smoothing out your motions, processing your inputs into something that Naija can actually swim. If you’re not in absolute control of your position or your velocity, giving the game a continuously-updated spot to aim for is just about the right way to describe the amount and kind of control you really have.


Under fire, underwaterA few years back, Aquaria made a big enough splash in the indie games scene for me to hear it. The demo seemed interesting enough to be worth getting, but I was already on the Oath at that point, and didn’t get around to buying it until it was included in the Humble Indie Bundle. And even then, it was bundled with enough stuff that I didn’t get around to playing it until today.

Set in a system of undersea caverns, the game gives you control of a mysterious not-quite-a-mermaid named Naija, possibly the last of her kind. Regardless of whether she is or not, she starts off as ignorant of her situation as the player. There are ruined temples and the like within spitting distance of her home, but she apparently hasn’t explored them, which is probably wise, considering the hostile marine life out there. Her uninquisitiveness ends with the player’s involvement, of course: exploration is more or less the point of the game, at least in the early stages. By exploring, you discover skills (in the form of songs) that allow you to bypass types of obstacle, and thereby explore further, sometimes backtracking to open up passageways in areas you left behind. For the first hour or two, it seems like that’s all there is to the game, because you have no way of attacking stuff (apart from the minuscule damage you can do by dropping rocks on them, and even that requires you to first learn how to lift rocks by singing). And honestly, that would be plenty for a certain flavor of game. But you do gain offensive capability after a while, and there are boss fights.

In short, it’s pretty much a Metroidvania, except for one thing: it’s not a platformer. It’s a vertical 2D scrolling environment, but you don’t jump and fall. You just swim freely. In a way, the game’s closest cousin is Ecco the Dolphin.